The Handsome Devil

I love that scene in Amadeus where the Emperor chastises Mozart for using “too many notes.” That cracks me up.

Except that I may be just as stuffy as old Emperor Joseph, in that I think it’s possible (and unpleasant) for a cocktail to combine too many ingredients—the cocktail version of “too many notes.” I’ll risk the chortles of my friends, and declare myself a cocktail minimalist. Four ingredients, that’s good; three ingredients—now you have the greatest of all cocktails: the Manhattan. Or the Martini, or the Old-Fashioned, or the Daiquiri. Simplicity rules.

And so I find myself in the strange position of recommending the very complex Handsome Devil. Nine ingredients.

Not counting the garnish.

And a couple of them you have to mix in advance. And it’s worth it: the Handsome Devil is a very attractive drink.

The recipe is one of Johnny Michaels’s inventions from his Northstar Cocktails (2012).

The thing that makes it work, of course, is that much of the drink is mixed in advance; at cocktail time, you only have to measure two ingredients, add ice, and garnish.

The Handsome Devil Cocktail, photo © 2013 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Handsome Devil Cocktail (Johnny Michaels)

Michaels calls the pre-mixed formula his “Devil Mix,” and it appears in many of his drinks. It’s a combination of liqueurs, bitters, and a touch of red pepper—the devil, as always, is buried in the details.

The Handsome Devil
Johnny Michaels, La Belle Vie, Minneapolis

  • 2 oz Jim Beam Black bourbon (Weller Antique 107 bourbon)
  • ½ (heavy) oz Devil Mix (see below)
  • garnish: orange slice, brandied cherry, hazelnut

Add bourbon and Devil Mix to rocks glass and then add ice. Insert orange slice like a Mohawk, so that the top of the peel is sticking out. Insert skewered cherry, and drop hazelnut in drink.

Nice and simple. Here are the secrets:

Devil Mix

  • 2 oz Benedictine
  • 2 oz Frangelico
  • 2 oz Cointreau (Grand Marnier, Ferrand Curacao)
  • ¼ oz 1:4 salt:water solution
  • ¼ oz hot pepper tincture (see below)
  • ⅛ oz (1 bar spoon) Angostura bitters
  • ⅛ oz (1 bar spoon) Regan’s orange bitters
  • ⅛ oz (1 bar spoon) Fee Brothers old-fashioned bitters

Mix and store in a bottle. Makes enough for 12–14 cocktails.

Hot Pepper Tincture

  • 1 oz crushed red pepper flakes
  • 3 oz Everclear grain alcohol

Add ingredients in a jar and let sit for 5 to 7 [hours], shaking once or twice. Strain through a fine mesh strainer and store in a sealed glass jar.

You see what I mean. The most preparation I’ve ever done for cocktails is simple syrup and brandied cherries, so this was a new experience. But as it turns out, the red pepper tincture is the only thing that really requires advance notice; once you have it in hand, it takes only a couple minutes to blend a batch of Devil Mix. (The mix as I’ve presented it here makes about 7 ounces, enough for a dozen cocktails.)

Despite the preparation time, the Handsome Devil ends up being a two-ingredient cocktail at serving time, very quick and easy to prepare. That’s an attractive characteristic for any barman with rows of customers to serve, but I find it pleasant even when I’m just mixing one for myself. It’s very much like making Old-Fashioneds: pour whisky, add the Devil Mix, garnish, and serve.

The Hot Pepper Tincture is easy to make—just pour the Everclear (vodka will work, but Everclear works better) over the pepper flakes in a small jar, shake, and let stand for a few hours. Michaels recommends that you infuse it for 5–7 days, but that makes a scorching tincture, far too hot for my tastes—my first attempt, infused for a week, was very intense and difficult to use. Start light, and adjust as you see fit.

Michaels recommends Jim Beam Black bourbon for the Handsome Devil. I have the good luck of being able to sit at his bar, where he has mixed quite a few Handsome Devils for me, and I can tell you that the Beam is a good choice. Back home again, with no Beam in my own pantry, I experimented with other whiskeys. I tried it with a couple ryes, but I think the Devil mix is better suited to the sweetness of bourbon. I like Handsome Devil with the Weller Antique 107, but I suspect many bourbons will blend equally well.

The Handsome Devil Cocktail (detail), photo © 2013 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.In the end, the Handsome Devil is fundamentally a whiskey drink, definitely in the style of the Whiskey Old-Fashioned, and very much in the spirit of Jerry Thomas’s “Improved” Whiskey Cocktails. The bourbon dominates the drink, but there is a faint nutty nose from the Frangelico, the boost of the orange from the garnish and the Cointreau, and then the subtle, lingering heat of the pepper. As the drink’s name suggests, that lingering heat is the key to the cocktail; you know you have the right amount of Devil Mix when the pepper is just a sensation in the swallow, and not before.

What I learned from the Handsome Devil: So the Handsome Devil brought me a bit of enlightenment. It seems that my idea of “minimalism” is really related to how picky a cocktail formula is, and how long it takes to make the drink. In fact, once I have a batch of Devil Mix in the ’fridge, I find that the Handsome Devil becomes a regular part of the cocktail hour rotation. I want it because it’s delicious; I make it because it’s quick and incredibly easy.

…besides, it has that amusing “Mohawk” garnish…

(If you’re interested in more of Michaels’s cocktails, don’t miss his spin on the gin sour, Z is for Zillah. And you can use more of that Devil Mix in his Future Ghost.)

4 thoughts on “The Handsome Devil

Add yours

  1. Although I needed to improvise on some of the ingredients (I substituted Peychaud’s for Fee Brothers and went a little heavy on the orange bitters), I thought this was a very interesting drink with lots of possible variations. I made my hot pepper tincture with plain old Skyy vodka and fresh red jalapeños. It was good and spicy after 24 hours. I think this hot pepper tincture could be added to lots of different cocktails with good effect. With approximately one teaspoonful per cocktail, it adds a note of beckoning complexity without overpowering the drink at all. Thanks so much for sharing this with us.

    1. Hi, Jake,

      Yes, there is probably no end to the variations you could make of this drink. I have to say, Johnny Michaels shows particular genius in that respect. And I do intend to follow up shortly with another use for the “Devil Mix.”

      Thanks for your experiments, and your comments.

    1. Yes, this is one of Johnny Michaels’s great ones. I agree that it would be nice if Devil Mix were commercial, but it’s unlikely to happen. Fortunately, it’s easy to make, and a batch lasts a long time. Thanks for taking time to comment, I always like that.

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